Exceptionalism about Politics

Here is a job description. The job I have in mind requires artful dissimulation, myth-making and story-telling facility, and a comfort with morally borderline activity. The ideal candidate will have both an aggressive temperament and a conscience strong enough to forbear from truly evil deeds. The candidate’s job has the potential to advance the public good, but also a serious risk of failure.

The job I have in mind is political leadership, and Philosophy Bites’ recent interview with Michael Ignatieff works as an unusually candid advertisement for it. What stands out from the interview is the exceptional exculpatory deference given to politics. Ignatieff wants to say, yes, politics is an ugly business and you have to get your hands dirty, but there’s just no other alternative to politics and we simply have to sing its praises.

There are two problems with Ignatieff’s exculpation of politics. The first is that Ignatieff seems to be working at different levels of idealization at different points in his argument. Ignatieff is defending politics as a practical activity rather than as a moral ideal. But what he actually defends is practical politics done by psychologically and morally ideal politicians–politicians, who, for example, can dissimulate without severing their commitment to the truth and dirty their hands only in pursuit of the common good. It’s not at all clear, however, if we should sing the praises of practical politics performed by actual people, for whom “realism” is often a cover for morally heinous deeds.

The second problem is an unjustified “exceptionalism” toward politics. We can apologize for lots of role or institution with morally problematic features by pointing to the necessary virtues of their participants or their absolute necessity. Fairness, then, requires us to admit that politics isn’t uniquely ennobled by an overriding concern for the public good. Take another institution–free markets. In markets with ideal participants, for example, each firm only acts with the goal of advancing the public good. Furthermore, the defense of absolute importance also applies to markets and their dramatic, unprecedented ability to create prosperity and well-being.

The interview’s defense of politics betrays a deep pro-political bias. But there’s no reason why we should go out of our way to ignore the deeply problematic features of political life. These features should motivate us to find alternatives, not excuses.